The Gift of Thomas: A Sermon
The Gift of Thomas
Sermon preached at Church of the Holy Nativity, Clarendon Hills, IL
April 8, 2018
Second Sunday of Easter
Lectionary texts: Acts 4:32-35, John 20:19-31
It is real joy for me to be back here among you all. It fills me with great emotion to see all these familiar faces. I bring Easter greetings from Amy, Aidyn, and Elliya. Wherever we go, we sing the praises of Holy Nativity, and we are constantly filled with a longing to be with you all again. This is a special place, and we were blessed to find a home here for the five years we lived in Chicagoland.
Some of you know that when we first arrived at CHN, Amy and I were not in the best place. We had just left New Jersey after seven years. During those years we were both fired from a Presbyterian church for not requiring the youth we were leading to attend church, and then a couple years later I was fired from another church for affirming the full inclusion of LGBT people. By the time we moved to Downers Grove I was in the middle of my PhD program, and we were both pretty much done with church. We knew we needed more than a fresh start; we needed healing. And we found that here. The sad conclusion to that story, as most of you know, is that after five years here I was fired again, this time from the evangelical Christian organization that I had been working for since moving to the area, because my beliefs were deemed not to be in alignment with their statement of faith.
I share this to explain why, over the past year, Amy and I have become very involved in online networks of ex-Christians and ex-evangelicals. Some of you may have seen stories about the group of people who have no religious affiliation, often called the “nones.” It’s the fastest growing religious category in the country; they aren’t necessarily atheists, but they no longer identify with any religious institution. Amy and I feel a deep kinship with these people and we’ve gotten to know many of them. The online groups we’re involved with are full of “nones,” many with stories far more harrowing than my own; many of them have experienced gaslighting by pastors, have faced emotional and sexual abuse, were shunned or kicked out for being gay or simply for refusing to place doctrine over the well-being of people’s lives. These social networks are full of people hurting deeply, seeking friends in the wake of spiritual loss and emotional wreckage. Many of them are triggered by the very sight of a church. For them Christian churches are the secret locations of their trauma, not the hospitals for their healing.
Many of these people will never set foot in a church again. Many of them will never believe in God again. Many of them couldn’t even if they wanted to, since God has become little more than the cosmic manifestation of the abusive power that was wielded against them by the people charged with caring for their souls.
These people know what it means to doubt. For them—for me—“Doubting Thomas” is one of those characters with whom we can truly relate.
If you’re like me, the story of Doubting Thomas can be quite liberating. It was freeing to hear a Bible story normalize doubt. As an intellectually skeptical teenager, I could look at Thomas and see my questions about the authenticity of the gospel spoken aloud and validated. In the same way that the Psalms validate expressions of anger at God, so too Thomas affirmed my curiosity and quest for knowledge.
But the story was rarely if ever told this way. In the hands of many youth leaders and pastors over the years, the story of Thomas became the story of what not to be, an admonition to precocious kids and independent thinkers to get back in line. Jesus seemed to be looking out over the course of history directly at me and saying: “Don’t be like Thomas over here, asking for proof. Believe me without any evidence. Just trust me!”
Now to be sure this can be a freeing message in its own way. For the 99.999% of people who didn’t live in the first century, the words of Jesus assure us that we are no worse off, that we aren’t bereft of God’s blessing just because of some historical accident of birth. And biblical scholars speculate that this is what John had in mind in this passage. We have to remember that this Gospel was written at least two generations after the time of Jesus, so the original eyewitnesses had all died, probably long ago. There was little by way of “proof” for the young Christian communities to hold on to. In narrating the story of Thomas, the Gospel writer was almost certainly speaking to his community through the person of Jesus, reassuring them that they are blessed for believing even without seeing Jesus face-to-face.
But the story of Doubting Thomas easily transforms into something less comforting and more controlling when church leaders use him as an example of what not to be, namely, someone who questions, challenges, and demands proof. According to many a sermon, Jesus says we are blessed for having blind faith—a faith that believes completely without seeing anything.
We are perched here on the edge of a knife—between “you can believe without evidence” and “you must believe without evidence.” On the one hand there is a much-needed freedom from constantly needing to have your knock-down arguments for God’s existence, your historical sources for Jesus’ death and resurrection, your sophisticated theological defenses for your particular tradition, your knowledge that your religion is true and right. On the other hand, though, there is the grave danger of falling into what we might call Authoritarian Religion. Authoritarianism is a form of social life that concentrates all power in the hands of a central power and requires blind submission to authority; authoritarian leadership denies the freedom of individuals to question or disobey its decisions. You may have heard this term in the news, since our current government displays many of the trademark tendencies of authoritarianism, most clearly seen in the way certain leaders oppose the work of journalists and claim that truth is a function of power: whatever these leaders say is supposedly true, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. Authoritarianism says: “Just trust me! Don’t listen to all those doubters and skeptics. I have all the answers, and anything you hear to the contrary is #fakenews.”
Many people in the media have been scratching their heads as to why over 80% of white evangelicals voted for Trump, but we need look no further than the story of Doubting Thomas. For many evangelicals, this story provides biblical support for authoritarianism, both in the church and, by extension, in the government. On this reading, Jesus is telling us to blindly submit to his authority, and to the authority of anyone who assumes his divinely appointed role—whether that’s the priest ministering to the congregation or the president ministering to the public.
Once the church heads down this path—silencing all opposition and forcing people to sacrifice their intellect and will—it opens the door wide to the very abuses that have led so many of my friends to abandon Christianity altogether. In a time of Authoritarian Religion, we need more Doubting Thomases, more people who ask difficult questions and refuse to believe blindly.
The problem with Thomas was not that he asked for evidence; it was that he was blind to the evidence already around him. The problem was not that Thomas asked to see too much but that he was able to see too little.
Thomas, we might say, had a restricted range of vision and a limited imagination. He was only satisfied with one kind of proof: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” As if Jesus were only visible in one particular body, as if he were exclusively revealed in these particular physical marks. Thomas had a highly literal mind; he was a kind of fundamentalist.
If only Thomas had been there a few moments earlier, he would have realized his mistake. Earlier Jesus had told the other disciples, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you,” and, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them.” In other words, through the giving of the Spirit, Jesus empowered his disciples to be his bodily presence on earth in his absence. The followers of Jesus are sent to be Christ for others. But that means when Thomas says he will only believe on the condition he sees Jesus, he has completely missed the point—though, in his defense, he wasn’t there. Nevertheless, Thomas does not realize he has already seen Jesus: he sees Jesus in the faces of his fellow disciples.
With the eyes to see, Thomas could have found Jesus in other places as well. Recall the parable Jesus tells in Matthew 25, in which the righteous ask the king, “When was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king’s answer is that “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matt 25:37–40).
Thomas wanted to see the risen Lord, but his eyesight was far too literal, his imagination too limited. He couldn’t see the truth: that Jesus was risen already in Thomas’s friends and neighbors, in the impoverished and imprisoned, in the often surprising places where the Spirit of Jesus is active. Thomas was still stuck in the past and so missed the new thing that God was doing in the present. Thomas was right to demand proof, but the proof he should have needed was not the literal body of Jesus but rather the larger body of Christ, the diverse, global community of people who are sent into the world just as Jesus was sent: to be the manifestation of God’s love, the aroma of Christ (2 Cor 2:15).
How appropriate then that the lectionary places today’s Gospel reading alongside the passage from the Acts of the Apostles, which serves as the very proof that Thomas was looking for:
Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. (Acts 4:32–35)
This is a vision of the church as the body of Christ in action, a people living in accordance with their calling. If our Gospel reading describes Jesus sending his disciples to be the church, then the reading from Acts describes what this ideally looks like: a community of true equality and justice.
But lest we get too comfortable and start to congratulate ourselves for being the church, how many of us have ever been in a church like the one described in Acts 4? How many of us have seen a community where no one was in need because everything was held in common and shared equally? By contrast, how many of us have instead been in communities where many were in need, where some were made to feel unwelcome, where some were even harmed and abused? How many of us have seen places call themselves churches while actively perpetuating the injustices in our society?
The point is that we need more Thomases—not Thomases with a limited imagination for where Jesus is present, but Thomases who will demand proof that a community of faith is truly the living body of Christ. Thomases who will hold communities accountable to the Acts 4 vision of the church. Thomases who will refuse to believe until they see the marks of Jesus in the hands and sides of the people called to be bearers of the gospel.
This is why I embrace my ex-Christian friends, for they are my Thomases. Their gift and calling is to be the one who says: “Prove it. Prove that you are who you say you are. Let me see your hands. Let me see your sides. Show me that Jesus is really alive in your life.”
For the rest of us, our job is not to convince them to join the church. We cannot expect those who have been abused and harmed by spiritual leaders to ever set foot in a church again, much less to react like Thomas did by crying out, “My Lord and my God!” The only reason I remain connected to Christianity is because of this community, because of the love I was shown here at CHN, and even then there are many weeks where I don’t know if I have the will to carry on as a Christian. But that’s OK, because Jesus isn’t alive only within the church, because the Spirit of God is not limited to these walls, because when my will fails the Spirit “intercedes with sighs too deep for words” (Rom 8:26). My friends and I may not find God in the church, but God can still certainly find us.
So no, your job and mine is not to convince the “nones” to check the box “Christian” on the next survey or census. Rather our job is to live in such a way that our ex-Christian neighbors can say, “I may never be able to call myself a Christian again, but I know for damn sure that Jesus is alive in this place.”